Joe Pilates was born into a world of corseted women. Fact: Well-bred ladies wore some form of corset starting in the 14th century. By the 1800s, extreme lacing of these core-crushing contraptions took hold. Remember in Gone with the Wind when Scarlet and Mammy struggle to squeeze Scarlet’s postpartum waist down to 18 inches? Then there’s the GWTW scene with the southern belles napping, corsets unleashed, literally taking a much-needed breather. Imagine forcibly cinching your waist down to 18–22 inches daily, all your adult life. People in the 1800s suspected corsets caused health problems. When a lady grew faint, the cry went out to loosen her laces and she was led to the fainting couch and administered smelling salts. Health experts warned that extremely tight lacing displaced organs and compressed the spine, not to mention the fact that it prevented proper muscle development and prohibited vigorous exercise. 19th century corsets were so rigid that women were forced to sit upright and could barely bend over. But women endured corsets from adolescence on in order to have fashionable figures.
It was in this social climate that Pilates introduced his method. He advocated building a powerhouse, which he called a “deep-muscle corset.” The inner corset consisted (and still does) of the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, inner-thigh muscles and all muscles surrounding the pelvis. When we practice Pilates properly, we construct our deep inner muscle corset by hollowing our center (core) and activating the muscles of the pelvic floor and girdle. We gain control over our bodies, and this leads to health in mind and spirit. But the mindset of the general public had to change before this concept could be widely accepted. When you look at the last hundred years, you will see the journey from corset to core strength parallels the emancipation and liberation of women.
March 8th 1911, when women celebrated the first Women’s History Day, most women wore corsets. By 1914 the modified corselet hit the market and so did looser clothes. On May 16, 1916, the first annual swimsuit day took place at Madison Square Garden in NYC. Women, freed from corsets, began to enjoy recreational activities. In the ’20s, rebel-rousing flappers with boyish figures danced risqué Charlestons. But the majority of ladies clung to undergarments with stays and laces. My grandmother, who was born in 1893, wore her corselet into the 1970s. She felt indecent if she didn’t wear it.
For decades she suffered from chronic indigestion, later diagnosed as a hiatus hernia. Corselet caused? Seems likely. My mother, in her 20s during WWII, wiggled into a compressing girdle until the late 1960s. Then, suddenly, it was women’s lib time and everything changed in a flash—at least on the surface. Mom threw away her girdle, hung up her dresses and put on a pantsuit. When I came of age, bra burnings were in the news. My mom and grandmother were fine with me wearing mini-skirts to high school and tiny bikinis to the beach. They’d accepted the changing societal attitudes toward women’s bodies. Amazing when you realize this transition happened in just 50 years, after 500 years of required corset wearing!
By the late ‘70s, everyone slithered into Spandex and fitness became an industry. I was one of the countless women pumping iron, sweating in aerobic classes, getting strong (at least on the outside). Yoga and mediation were catching on, but Pilates work that developed those deep inner corset muscles wasn’t mainstream yet. Then, as those of us in the Pilates community know, Pilates went public in the early 1990s and it caught on like wild fire.
As of 2011, more than 40 years after Joe passed away, 12 million people worldwide practice Pilates, and approximately 30 thousand people teach Joe’s methods. The deep corset muscle building methods Joe introduced right around 1911 are now the foundation of mind-body movement and fitness practices throughout the entire world. They’ve been embraced by both sexes, but do seem to mirror the century-long empowerment of women. Joe’s life view wasn’t just about constructing the deep muscle corset. It was about taking control of the body and empowering it and, allowing the whole being—mind, body and spirit—to flourish.
As we come to the end of the centennial anniversary of Women’s History Month, let’s think about how the Pilates lifestyle has empowered women to this point in history, and how practicing and teaching the Pilates method to women of all ages and future generations of women can help them evolve toward even greater emancipation and accomplishment. I invite you to weigh in on this topic from your own experiences as one who practices Pilates and/or teaches it.
March 17, 2011
On March 8, 1911, Europe celebrated the first International Women’s Day. More than 70 years later, in 1987, the U.S. Congress officially declared March to be Women’s History Month.
Schools around the country have dedicated March to recognizing women’s historic accomplishments for decades, and this year, on the 8th, posts and Tweets from women the world over celebrating women’s accomplishments flooded social networks. There were images of trailblazing women—campaigning for equality, powerful world leaders, record-breaking athletes, inventors, explorers, creators who’ve made it easier for women in many, but sadly not all countries, to fully realize their potential. These images and articles made me think, What about going deeper, even into prehistoric times and looking at the Goddesses who were the original role models? By this, I mean: the Earth mothers who protected and nurtured us; the warrior women, who were fearless activists and defenders of rights; and the healers, who sourced out disease and cured it.
These women all emerged from creation stories, legends and myths to become universal archetypes—powerhouses who, to this day, are present in our consciousness. We name our daughters and businesses after them (e.g. Venus Williams, who’s named after Venus, the Goddess of Beauty and Love; Tannis, my name, and yes, it is my given name, is the Greek spelling (no, I’m not Greek like Joe) of Tanit, which means serpent lady). No, none of these Goddess names were picked intentionally. But the Goddess presence has deep roots in all cultures.
For fun, I’ve compiled a sampling of Goddesses—some famous and some obscure—from different origins. They’re divided into the following categories: MOTHER, WARRIOR and HEALER (although many Goddesses do fit in more than one category). I’ve listed extra ones in HEALER, because they’re so abundant in every culture. All of these Goddesses possess qualities applicable to Pilates. And here’s the fun part: As you read, think about this:
WHICH GODDESS, OR GODDESS-COMBO ARE YOU?
HOW DOES THIS INFORM YOUR PILATES PRACTICE?
Isis: Egyptian; mother of all goddesses. Goddess of birth, death and rebirth. Her love never dies. She shows us the ways of creation and destruction. Call on Isis as a midwife, teacher, physician and friend.
Asdzą́ą́ Nádleehé: Navaho; “The woman who changes.” She helped create the sky and earth. The second word in her name connotes one “who changes” or literally translates that she is hermaphroditic.
Tanit: Phoenician; Goddess of Fertility and unifier of Earth and sky. Known as the Serpent Lady.
Nike: Greek; and, yes, Nike is named after this Goddess of strength, speed, and victory. She’s admired for her wings and ankles and know to run very fast. She’s the one in that famous Winged Victory statue.
Athen: Youthful and idealistic, this intellectual strategist warrior dedicated to defending culture and a higher purpose. She’s the protector, and willing to enter the male arena and battle against injustices. Tall, sword baring, armor-clad virgin amazon, often depicted with an owl (wise) and intwined snakes (the Caduceus or Hippocratic Oath symbol).
Morrigan: Irish goddess of battle, victory and also fertility. She’s known for her courage and fierce emotions in battle that evoke fear in the enemy. Her totem animal is the raven or crow.
Brigid: Celtic; Goddess of inspiration. A healing muse that brings peace, inspiration, and wisdom. Known as the Bright One and also Bride.
Wóȟp: Lakota—Later known as White Buffalo Calf Woman. Goddess of Peace, in terms of harmony, meditation and cycles of time. Her name means meteor. Her sacred healing stone is turquoise.
Mamacocha: INKA or Q’ERO—Goddess of the ocean, she’s a source of health and food, and represents the largest source of water energy and sustenance. Sometimes depicted as a Whale Goddess.
Tara: Hindu; Goddess of Inner Wisdom and Mysticism. She guides us to our center and stillness. Tara offers strength, compassion and self mastery through understanding.
Hebe: Greek; her name means youth or “in the prime of life”. Her role was to serve the nectar and ambrosia to the Gods and Goddesses that prevented them from aging.
Sekhmet: Egyptian; Warrior goddess and goddess of healing. She both brought and cured disease. Her name became synonymous with physicians. She’s depicted as The Lioness, a ferocious huntress.
Oshun Ibu Anya – Oshun of the Drums: Yoruba Nigerian. The patron of dancing and the Anya drums. She dances ceaselessly to forget her troubles. She rules love, beauty, and the arts—especially dance. Her voice is in the rush and flow of streams, rivers, lakes and waterfalls.
QUESTIONS FOR ALL PILATES GODDESSES:
1. In terms of your Pilates practice or teaching approach, which Goddess best personifies you?
2. What made you chose this Goddess as your Archetype?
3. What Pilates exercise best suits this Goddess?
4. In relationship to Pilates, if you could be another goddess, which one would you choose and why?
5. What blend of Goddesses do you think makes for the ideal Pilates Goddess, and why?